Creative research and that show about Leonardo da Vinci

So I haven’t been publishing quite as much lately because there’s currently a lot of change going on at my library, some of which is directly affecting my position and the work I do. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it can be difficult to know how to talk about change while you’re still in the middle of it. I’m sure I’ll have some useful reflections on all of this at some point, but for now it’s a little harder than usual to know what to say or how to say it.

But I didn’t want to leave this space blank in the meantime so I decided for this week at least I’m just going to do a fun post that’s tangentially related to some of what I usually talk about here on this blog, especially with regard to creative research.

I want to talk about the TV series Leonardo as both a portrayal of creative research and a product of creative research.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Leonardo.

Leonardo, if you’re unfamiliar, is a series that first aired in the UK last year and is now airing in the United States. It stars Aidan Turner as Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a murder mystery with Leonardo as the prime suspect and Freddie Highmore (aka Peter from Finding Neverland, all grown up) as the sixteenth century version of a detective investigating the case.

I was mildly interested in the series when I first heard about it because I’d read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci last year that I found really interesting. That the story in the show was obviously fictionalized (Leonardo was not, as far as I remember, ever suspected of murdering anyone and the supposed murder victim is a complete fabrication) was a little annoying but not necessarily a deal breaker. And I’d liked Aidan Turner in other things, like Being Human and Poldark. He was definitely not what I pictured when I thought of Leonardo, but I was curious to see how he might play it.(1)

Then I read a pretty scathing review of the show in the New York Times which suggested, among other things, that it had erased both Leonardo’s more methodical approach to creating art and his (likely) homosexuality. After that, I was ready to write the show off.

I’m glad I didn’t. At this point, I’ve only seen three episodes and I can admit that it’s far from perfect. (The ending of the third episode is especially ridiculous.) But as someone who is no expert on Leonardo or his work but knows something about him from the biography I read (plus a refresher from the Wikipedia page), I kind of…don’t hate it.

I mean, yeah. The murder mystery element of the show is highly ridiculous and also super unnecessary. Maybe it would be different if there had been some kind of unsolved, parallel incident in Leonardo’s life but as far I know there isn’t. They just made all of this up as a sort of framing device for telling a (mostly fictionalized) version of Leonardo’s life story. And while the show doesn’t erase Leonardo’s sexual orientation (his attraction to other men and their attraction to him is made pretty clear, at least in the episodes I’ve seen), it’s still a little annoying that his closest relationship on the show is with a fictional female character, even if the (non-romantic, non-sexual) relationship between them in the flashbacks is pretty sweet at times.

But aside from that I find myself enjoying how they incorporate some of the known details about Leonardo’s life and work into the story that they’re telling. Watching it actually reminded me of some of the cool things about his art, including the way his contributions to other people’s works have been identified through the use of left-handed brush strokes and even the way he wrote backwards in his notebooks.(2) It’s fun to recognize these details and observe how the show uses them.

What’s really interesting though is that in most cases details like these would be used to establish the authenticity or accuracy of a creative work. Here, they call attention to the show’s overall inaccuracy. You’d think that would be a bad thing but I think it’s actually a good way for the people behind the show to indicate that the show’s fictional nature is deliberate. Like they’re saying: See? We did do the research—we’re just using it differently. At least, that’s how I feel as I’m watching it. Spotting those “real” details has actually become part of the fun of watching the show.

As with any example of creative liberty, though, you have to wonder about the overall effect it might have on what people know or think they know about the subject being portrayed. The deliberate historical inaccuracies in Hamilton, for example, matter because of how popular Hamilton is and because the figures in it are rarely portrayed elsewhere. Because of the song “Satisfied,” a lot of people believe that the reason Angelica Schuyler didn’t marry Hamilton was because she couldn’t due to of the pressures of her position in her family. In reality the reason she didn’t marry him was because she was already married. And her position in her family wasn’t actually that important because despite what’s stated in the song her father did, in fact, have sons.(3)

Leonardo, as a show, is not really in the same position. First of all, most people already have a lot of inaccurate “knowledge” about Leonardo da Vinci thanks to The Da Vinci Code. Second, it’s unlikely that the show will ever be anywhere near as popular as The Da Vinci Code or Hamilton. The number of people it will influence is not nearly as big so its sins are, I think, more forgivable.

Plus the people who make the show have been extremely clear that the damn thing is fictional.

One last thing: one of the reasons I was fascinated with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo was because it went into so much detail about the research that went into Leonardo’s art. The show doesn’t portray that, at least not directly. I think it implies some of Leonardo’s fascination with the world and figuring out how things work by, for example, having him closely watching the movement of a flock of birds outside of his jail cell. But that could be wishful thinking on my part. Either way, it’s too bad they don’t really show the amount of research that went into his creative work but understandably that would be a bit hard to dramatize.

So, yeah. I don’t hate it. I wouldn’t necessarily defend the show on the grounds of quality and my overall feeling about it might change as it goes on (…and for some reason extends into a second season because it’s already been renewed). But it’s enjoyable enough and it’s an interesting example of creative research and creative license. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the New York Times review feels a little unfair.

*

(1) Honestly the image that leaps to mind when I think of Leonardo da Vinci is still Patrick Godfrey, who played him in the movie Ever After, where he’s the stand-in for Cinderella’s fairy godmother. A bit different from Aidan Turner’s Sexy Leonardo but, to be fair, there is historical evidence that as a younger man Leonardo was considered pretty hot in his day.

(2) Not as a special code—he was left-handed and mirror writing was probably just an easier way to write.

(3) Obligatory reminder that I do like Hamilton and especially love the song “Satisfied” and that I understand it’s art and not a documentary and blah blah blah.

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